Notes from the Apothecary: Cow Parsley
Anthriscus Sylvestris or cow parsley is a member of the Apiaceae family, just like the carrot and hemlock. It has tall, hollow stems topped with a flurry of delicate white flowers. In Europe it is a common hedgerow plant, and a familiar sight to walkers and foragers. It’s one of the first flowers to appear by the roadside in spring.
With many common names including the grand “Queen Anne’s Lace” and the morbid “Mother Die”, this plant is a piece of living history and an intriguing part of the British countryside.
The Kitchen Garden
Encouraging cow parsley into the garden would seem like madness here in Britain. This biennial can be found just about anywhere and grows and spreads very quickly, although it also dies back quickly before summer’s end. In North America, it’s often classed as an invasive species, so if you decide to grow your own do check that it’s actually legal. The sale of the plant is completely banned in certain states.
However, if you were to cultivate a little patch of the tall and pretty flowers, the leaves can be used in salads and are supposed to taste a little like chervil. The flowers also attract ladybirds and a range of butterflies, so can be beneficial to the whole garden.
Foragers, be mindful that cow parsley is very similar in appearance to both hemlock and giant hogweed. The first is fatal if eaten. The latter can cause severe burns to the skin by increasing photosensitivity to extreme levels. Do not pick wild cow parsley unless you are 100% sure that’s what it is, and be careful of damaging the local environment.
Cow parsley may have the following properties:
As with most herbal medicines, there is very little research completed into these anecdotal claims and many of these purported properties come from folk remedies and old herbal books.
In China, cow parsley is particularly associated with reducing lung weaknesses and disorders such as bronchitis and asthma. The roots are sometimes used to make a generally healing tonic.
In western medicine, cow parsley has been used over the ages for stomach complaints, kidney problems, and even mental health issues like insomnia and anxiety.
The Witch’s Kitchen
Cow parsley is one of the first flowering plants of spring so is ideal for an Imbolc altar or sacred space. It represents the turn of the season and liminal spaces like the hedgerows and verges it is found in. Cow parsley is about transitional periods, the pause between different states of being and being present in the moment.
The flowers are white which is associated with purity and wholeness in some cultures. In Celtic mythology, white represents a visitor from the underworld or, in more modern terms, from beyond the veil. The Irish magical hounds, cú sídhe, are white with red ears and are often said to be harbingers of death. Death may mean a complete transformation rather than the literal meaning of life’s end. It may be the end of a period of pain, a job you are stuck in, or even a dissatisfactory relationship.
The plant also has a strong association with death. English superstition seems to state that this is because it tended to grow on graves or in graveyards. Folk names include dead-man’s flourish and the aforementioned mother die or mother’s dead. Cow parsley could be used as an emblem when meditating or performing visualisations around those who have passed. You could even reverse the association and carry a sprig of cow parsley as a protection against harm or death.
Home and Hearth
Take a sprig of cow parsley in bloom. Focus on each individual white flower. Marvel at how each tiny flower makes up a huge umbel of white. Each small segment is a part of the greater whole. They are all different, so none is perfect, yet the overall effect is one of perfection; a whole made of many parts.
Imagine yourself as a part in a greater whole. Start by visualising yourself as you are now, then gradually move outwards. What can you see? What things are around you? Which of those things do you feel connected to? Keep a mental note of the things you see which make you feel happy, satisfied, or a give you a sense of achievement.
Now, take a note of what is not there. Is something missing which you expected to see? Can you feel that there is a part of your life which is not represented in this scene? Or is there something there which you do feel connected to, but which does not make you feel happy? Is it draining you? Is it a waste of your kindness and compassion?
Use this visualisation to encourage you to let things go which do not serve you or the ones you love. Be inspired to reconnect to the things which bring you joy and wholeness and to give less energy or fully disconnect from those things which use you up needlessly.
I Never Knew…
The folk name, Mother Die, came from tales that children were told to try and scare them from picking the plant. Kids were told that if they picked cow parsley, their mothers would die. This was a way to stop them picking any plant that looked like cow parsley, and so avoiding the fatally poisonous hemlock. Another telling is that it only killed if taken in the house, and bullies would sometimes try and shove the plant down the jumpers of other kids to trick them into accidentally taking it into their homes. Kids also used to use the hollow stems as pea shooters- a risky game if you accidentally picked hemlock instead!
All images via Unsplash or public domain apart from final image, Anthriscus Sylvestris by Qwert1234 via WikiMedia Commons.
About the Author:
Mabh Savage is a Pagan author, poet and musician, as well as a freelance journalist.